How much platinum does this asteroid hold?
Photograph by NASA/AP

Asteroid resources could be worth trillions.

By Ian Mount
February 3, 2016

Little Luxembourg may be best known for having the world’s highest GDP per capita at around $100,000, but it is now looking to be famous for something far more exotic: asteroid mining.

And it plans to do it with help from one of Google’s founders.

The Financial Times reports that the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is launching an official program to promote mining asteroids for minerals. The goal is to join with U.S. and European companies to search asteroids—or, rather, “Near-Earth Objects”—for metals and other compounds that are rare on Earth, such as platinum.

“We know how to get to asteroids, how to drill into them and how to get samples back to Earth,” Jean-Jacques Dordain, former director-general of the European Space Agency and an adviser on the Luxembourgish project, told the FT.

The economics of digging for space treasure are unclear. Business Insider reports that it is estimated to cost NASA $1 billion to bring back a mere 60 grams of asteroid from the OSIRIS-REx mission. But then again, one asteroid that flew by Earth last year, 2011 UW-158, was thought to hold between $300 billion and $5.4 trillion worth of platinum and other materials.

For his part, Dordain said the cost of setting up an asteroid mining project could cost millions but, “at the end there could be a market worth trillions.”

Two of Luxembourg’s partners in space prospecting are private U.S. companies that were set up expressly for asteroid mining: Planetary Resources, where Google googl co-founder Larry Page is an investor, and Deep Space Industries.

According to Business Insider, Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider has been trying to get them on board for two years, since he started working on the project in secret after visiting a NASA research center in August 2013.

 

One sticking point to the project could be contradictions within space law. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that, “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”

But last year President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which gives U.S. firms rights to whatever asteroid resources they can extract. Sooner or later, asteroid mining may have its day in court.

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